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Are Mancini's Azzurri true blue?

Monday 14th October 2019
It's too warm right now for the scarf but Roberto Mancini is still styling with this Italy squad.
It's too warm right now for the scarf but Roberto Mancini is still styling with this Italy squad.

Background image: Mitch Rosen

When Josh King put away Norway’s stoppage-time penalty on Saturday, snatching a draw at the death against Spain in Euro 2020 Group F after England had lost the previous night in Prague, only two perfect nations remained in the qualifying process. No one should be surprised Belgium is one. The third-best team at the World Cup keeps on trucking. The other country is a mild shock. Italy failed to qualify for Russia18.

The Azzurri were mediocre under Gian Piero Ventura and caretaker Luigi di Biagio in the 22 months following Antonio Conte’s resignation.  To be fair, the former Juventus, Chelsea and current Inter boss overachieved at Euro16 with a weak squad by Italian standards.

That said, Roberto Mancini hasn’t stumbled upon a golden generation either albeit maybe a silver one. The 54-year-old relies on a veteran core. He consistently plays an attacking 4-3-3 but still searches for a preferred XI.

In goal, Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma splits time with veteran Torino keeper Salvatore Sirigu. Mancini doesn't want the 20-year-old getting ahead of himself.

Leonardo Bonucci starts every qualifier in central defence but has sought in vain for a suitable partner since Juventus partner Giorgio Chiellini’s injury. Mancini gives significant minutes to Milan’s Alessio Romagnoli [180], Roma’s Gianluca Mancini [156 and no relation], Torino’s Armando Izzo [101] and Lazio’s Francesco Acerbi [180]. None have found the right chemistry to remain with the temperamental Zebra.

At left-back, Mancini likes Chelsea’s Emerson but injury again forced him to look to his bench where Roma’s Leonardo Spinazzola was ready to step in. Young Luca Pellegrini, on loan to Cagliari from Juventus, is yet to be named to the squad.

On the far side, Roma captain Alessandro Florenzi rotates with Inter’s Danilo D’Ambrosio. Juve’s Mattia de Sciglia and Valencia’s Christiano Piccini were in the mix before they took knocks.

Up front, Torino’s Andrea Belotti and the Federico twins, Fiorentina’s Chiesa and the Bianconeri’s Bernardeschi, are constants but Lorenzo Insigne [Napoli], Fabio Quagliarella [Sampdoria], Ciro Immobile [Lazio] and Moise Kean [Everton] all receive time and contribute goals.

Midfield is where Mancini is most certain. Marco Veratti, Jorginho and Inter’s Nicolo Barella occupied 19 of the 21 starting midfield places in the seven matches to this point. While the Chelsea man prepares for penalties like he's about to walk barefoot on hot coals, he is the heart of Mancini's lineup as he is for Frank Lampard and was for Maurizio Sarri. The Paris Saint-Germain playmaker creates. Young Barella acts as the X-factor. Before their injuries, the Nerazzurri’s Stefano Sensi and Roma’s Lorenzo Pellegrini deputised. Pellegrini’s young teammate Nicolo Zaniolo has been given a taste with three mop-up appearances totalling 41 minutes.

Of the players Mancini trusts, eight are under 25, a dozen are between 25-29, four are either 31 or 32 while Chiellini and Quagliarella are the greybeards at 35 and 36 respectively. It’s a decent balance although the numbers flatter to deceive when it comes to international experience. Chiellini is the only player with a century of caps [103]. Bonucci has 92. Beyond the two Juventus defenders, no one in Mancini’s talent pool approaches 50. De Sciglio and Immobile boast 39 and 38. Veratti [35], Florenzi [34] and Insigne [33] are next on the list. Again, by Azzurri standards, this is a makeshift squad.

Despite that, they dominate their qualifying group. Admittedly, it’s no group of death but Bosnia and Greece are squads that Italy would struggle to beat in recent years. Under Mancini, the Azzurri are ruthless and clinical, claiming maximum points, scoring 20 goals despite no one player contributing more than two [seven have done that] and conceding just three.

The question is whether they can replicate that success in June? Will everyone continue to pitch in against much stronger competition or must Quagliarella or Immobile rediscover their vintage form? Might Moise Kean find his Kylian Mbappe moment? Thus far at Everton, the 19-year-old hasn’t approached that level. He’s eager to take on every defender who appears in front of him as though a football match is a session of Red Dead Redemption played in his parents' basement. He's yet to discover the cheat code for interacting with teammates.

The true Azzurri ace in the hole is the same one it was four years ago. By that, I mean the manager.  Similar to Conte, Mancini is a coach with plenty of silverware on his CV. Three Scudettos with Inter and Manchester City’s first title in the Mansour era top the list. Like Conte going from the Old Lady to the national team, Mancini’s transition from the Beneamata to the Citizens was one of riches to rags. He cobbled a lineup together around Sergio Aguero and David Silva that both might struggle to recall given their current brothers in arms.

The 54-year-old might go around with six-pack abs hidden under a fashionable coat, scarf and perfect hair but Roberto Mancini is a grafter who can draw blood from a stone. Italy won’t be favourites at Euro2020 but don’t be shocked when they make a deep run and knock off a bonafide contender or two along the way.

Football Fixtures
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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